Plants from the past that regain popularity are well worth growing in your garden.
These plants usually are tough and beautiful. Many such plants have a historical record that predates modern times. Colors, fragrances and disease tolerances have improved, making these “old is new” plants even better.
Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) have existed since before recorded history. Alcea is a genus of about 60 species of flowering plants in the mallow family (Malvaceae). These tall, colorful plants are better traveled than most people. Originating in East Asia, hollyhocks were a gardening mainstay in ancient Japan. Their seeds and popularity traveled across Asia to the Middle East, where the English discovered them during the Crusades. Historical lore indicates that hollyhocks may have been named for the Holy Wars (holly) and the salve created to heal the Crusaders’ horses’ legs (hocks).
Hollyhocks were popular due to their reputation for growing almost anywhere in any climate and in any soil. During the 19th century, Europe embraced gardening for reasons other than just food production. Flower gardens became the rage. Every garden had a large stand of hollyhocks for not only their color but also for their medicinal value. In time, hollyhock seeds traveled across the Atlantic to become the backbone of many kitchen gardens in the new world. Hollyhocks can now be found growing almost everywhere, especially in kitchen and cottage gardens. They linger near our homes, poking through fences, peering into windows and flaunting their blooms in alleyways. That might be how they earned the unflattering nickname of alley orchids.
Before the advent of the corner drug store, plants were the option for home remedies. If you had a sunburn, shortness of breath, wounds, cramps, kidney or bladder problems, respiratory issues or convulsions, hollyhocks were the plants of choice for a remedy. The plants could be used as a poultice or in a tea. Hollyhocks have a high concentration of mucilaginous juice that is said to calm inflammation. In addition, according to the SPCA, www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants/hollyhock, hollyhocks are non-toxic to dogs, cats and horses.
Hollyhocks are the definition of an old-fashioned “pass-along plant.” It is a true cottage garden plant that supplies height and drama during the summer season. These tall, colorful flowers are happy anywhere but in soggy soil. They self-seed and will continue to grow wherever humans reside. The plants are biennials, spending the first year growing their foliage and the second year providing a colorful, tall display of flowers. The plants make a great screen but often need to be staked due to their height. The colors are vibrant, ranging from white, deep red, pink, yellow and maroon to almost-black. Their height is dramatic, starting at 3 feet and growing up to 8 feet.
Flowers do not appear until the second year but it is worth the wait. Pick a sunny location and work up the soil adding compost or planting mix. Make sure there is a wind break. Space the plants 18 inches apart. Plants may be put into the ground in spring or in fall. Hollyhock seedlings purchased from a nursery will have a special soil mixture around the roots. Plant the whole thing, roots and soil, even with the level of your soil. Press the soil to firm it up and water the plants in. Remember to remove any seed heads that grow to help continue the blooms. When the flowers have faded away, cut the stalk off at the base.
In the 1870s, hollyhock growers received a lesson in seed-saving directly from Mother Nature. An airborne fungus, Puccinia malvacearum, or hollyhock rust, decimated the plants and the seed supply. Hollyhock popularity waned as many varieties disappeared overnight.
Hollyhock rust is a problem that can be controlled with better gardening practices. Rust creates noticeable yellow spots on the top of the leaves and reddish brown spots on the underneath. Spots grow together destroying large sections of foliage. The fungus likes hot and humid weather.
Here are some simple controls. Remember to water the soil and not the leaves. When you first notice rust, pick off the leaves and dispose of them in the garbage, not the compost pile. When planting hollyhocks, allow ample air circulation around the plants. Keep your garden weed free. Spread a nice layer of mulch over the ground to discourage last year’s spores. If need be, as a last resort, use a fungicide.
It is not every day that a piece of history may be planted in your garden. The remains of hollyhocks have been found in an archeological dig buried with a Neanderthal man, they have marched in the Crusades, acted like an all-night drug store, and provided inspiration for artists. How can you skip planting something as versatile as hollyhocks?
Julie Silva is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County who loves “old is new again” flowers.
UCCE Master Gardeners of Tuolumne County can answer home gardening questions. Call (209) 533-5912, or go online to ucanr.edu/survey/survey.cfm?surveynumber=7269 to fill out our easy-to-use problem questionnaire. Check out our website at www.cecentralsierra.ucanr.edu/Master_Gardeners. You can also find us on Facebook, or pick up the local Master Gardener book “Sharing the Knowledge: Gardening in the Mother Lode” at Mountain Books or the UCCE office in Sonora.